In cafeteria meals, health, nutrition and fundraising come together

August 21, 2012

By Lillian O'Rorke

Many components come together to form a school lunch. Photo illustration by David Hayes and Warren Kagarise

Just after school got out last year, the Issaquah School District put out a bid for pizza.

After evaluating three local pizza pie makers, the lucrative contract went to Padrino’s Pizza and Pasta. It includes two one-year extension options if district officials are happy with the restaurant’s performance and pricing.

Why bother with the formality of the bidding process and signing papers? Last year’s contract holder, Papa John’s, made 35,000 pizzas for the schools. Assuming students will eat just as much this year, at $5.50 to $5.75 per 16-inch pie, Padrino’s is set to do about $200,000 worth of piping-hot business with the district.

That is also a good deal for the district, Director of Food Service Brian Olson explained, as the pizza actually helps pay for the lunch program. Individual slices are sold at a marked up price to middle school and high school students via the à la carte cafeteria option. The return is then funneled back into Food Services to help subsidize the hot lunch program.

With the state and federal government kicking in a little over 15 percent of the funding for the approximately 1.25 million meals the district serves in a year, the goal is for the program to be self-supporting. With $4.2 million trickling in from students’ lunch money, it just about is.

Pizza, nuggets and baby carrots

It doesn’t come as a shock that pizza is a favorite in the lunchroom, Olson said. Other popular meals include chicken nuggets and brunch for lunch. Never fried (there are zero fryers in the Issaquah School District) chicken nuggets and their cousin, chicken rings, are a mainstay on the elementary school menus’ Friday VIP slot.

Every day, children in all grades eating hot lunch get at least three options, two of them meatless, with each one including a trip to the salad bar. In years past, students didn’t have to take a fruit or vegetable if they didn’t want to. As long as they had three items on their tray, it counted as a complete lunch in the eyes of the feds, who set the guidelines for hot lunches.

“Chicken nuggets are tastier than vegetables,” Olson said.

But the U.S. Department of Agriculture is changing the rules this year. Beginning next month, when student chatter shatters the summerlong quiet of the cafeteria, children will have to choose at least one fruit or vegetable.

“It won’t be much of a change for them,” said Olson, adding that baby carrots are an easy sell. “We’ve had those salad bars out there so I think our students have been exposed to those vegetables. Some will turn up their noses and some won’t skip a beat.”

Other changes will include more whole grains, an increase in the selection and variety of fruits and vegetables, and an emphasis on super foods like legumes, dark greens, and red and orange veggies. Trans fat is getting the boot, while meals will average less than 10 percent calories from saturated fat. Sodium content will be lower and the district will only serve 1 percent and fat-free milk.

What’s for lunch?

Lunch menus for the elementary and secondary levels are posted each month online at www.issaquah.wednet.edu. From the “Family Resources” drop-down menu select “Lunch Program.” Links to the menus and corresponding nutritional data are at the bottom of the page.

Healthy school district

The new guidelines are not a big switch for the district, which has been striving to improve nutrition over the past several years. According to Olson, recent movements like Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” weren’t all that revolutionary here.

“We were already doing a lot of that stuff,” he said. “It really hasn’t played too much of a role for us. We offer a lot of variety for fresh vegetables and fruits.”

Last year, the district went through 10,500 pounds of salad. And at the middle and high school levels, oversized cookies and baked goods are nowhere to be seen. Neither is soda. Instead, students can purchase bottled water, Vitamin Water, 100 percent juice drinks and Gatorade. For hot lunch, hamburger buns are made from whole wheat instead of white flour and all à la carte items, with the exception of pizza, have already been limited to 250 calories or less per serving.

Olson said he looked into purchasing local and organic produce but said it was too expensive. As well, he added, it would be a challenge for any farmer to deliver to 23 separate schools at least twice a week. So for now, all $1.74 million of the district’s groceries come from Food Services of America.

Going à la carte

Along with more homework and responsibility, students moving on from elementary school also get more options in the lunchroom. Middle and high school students get to choose between having hot lunch and going the à la carte route.

While the hot lunch program is regulated by the USDA, the à la carte program is not. But, according to Olson, the absence of federal oversight does not mean that nutrition is sacrificed. In fact, it is the opposite, he said.

“We are a little more stringent,” he said. “We definitely hit all the national program’s goals, and we take it a little bit further.”

While piecing together a lunch of individual snack items, like SunChips, apples, pizza and Gatorade, is more expensive than the $3.75 hot lunch, Olsen said it is much more popular.

“There is definitely a stigma that surrounds hot lunch,” he said. “Those (à la carte) are items the students are familiar with. They know what it’s going to be … rather than coming over and having our pasta.”

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